Understanding the Focus and Recompose Technique

0Comments

Digital cameras have an array of squares or dots, that you see when you look through the viewfinder, which represent the points at which it is capable of focusing. Put your subject on top of one of those dots, press the shutter button, and you’ll get a nice sharp image….usually.

But, sometimes your camera doesn’t light up the right dot, or your subject is out of the range of the focus points, or you want to select a specific point but you have trouble moving the buttons, knobs, and dials on your camera fast enough. If this sounds like you, or if you just want to check out a new way of using your camera, you might want to try the focus-and-recompose technique.

focus-and-recompose-shoes

Kids move around all the time, so rather than hunt for a specific focus point I used the center point to focus on their shoes and then instantly recomposed before snapping the photo.

Every digital camera allows you several options when selecting which focus points to use such as:

  • Full automatic – Your camera decides which dot to use, and what should be in in focus, often based on what’s closest to the viewfinder.
  • Face Detect – Your camera looks at the scene to see if there are any faces and prioritizes those above all else. If there are multiple faces, it usually looks for the ones that are closest.
  • Single Point – You select one point to be in focus and your camera makes sure that one specific spot is sharp before taking the picture.

There are other methods as well, but these are the most common, and all of them are quite effective but can also be a bit limiting. Automatic and Face Detect generally work fine but aren’t always accurate. If you want to select the focus point yourself you will usually have to turn a dial or press a joystick on the back of your camera, which can cost you precious seconds, and lead to some missed shots. Focus-and-recompose inverts the equation a bit, and instead of moving the focus point around you focus once, and then move your camera around to compose and get the shot you want.

focus-and-recompose-squirrel

Focus-and-recompose is a process wherein you select the focus point, often just one single dot or square in your viewfinder, and lock focus with a half-press of the shutter button. Then with a flick of your wrist you physically move your camera back and forth, or up and down just a bit, in order to recompose your shot will still keeping the focus where you locked it. It sounds a bit complicated, but once you get used to this technique it quickly becomes second nature, and is much faster than fiddling with buttons and dials to select a focus point every time.

In the following image I have overlaid an exact representation of all 51 focus points on my Nikon D750 camera. You will notice that the object on which I wanted to focus, the red pully mechanism on the crane arm, falls outside the focus points of my camera.

focus-and-recompose-focus-points-crane

If I had to rely solely on the focus points of my camera, I wouldn’t have been able to get the shot I wanted. However, the focus-and-recompose technique offered an easy solution. All I had to do was focus on the top pully, lock it with a button on my camera, and then recompose the shot by shifting my camera’s field of view down just a bit. By using this method I did not need to make an compromises, and I am pleased with the final image

Even though some cameras offer a much broader spread of focus points that can reach to the very edge of the frame, it is time-consuming to select them, or shift from one to the next using the dials on your camera. Some cameras don’t have nearly the number of focus points as higher-end models, which can be a bit frustrating when your subject falls between two points, but focus-and-recompose can solve this issue as well. I don’t even use all 51 of my camera’s points, because it’s quicker to select one from only 11, as you can see in the image below, and then recompose as needed.

focus-and-recompose-portrait

It’s not always possible to get the focus precisely where you want it, if you let your camera do all the work for you.

This portrait of a college sophomore (above) illustrates a big problem for traditional focusing methods, especially on cameras without a lot of focus points. In order to get the focus point precisely on her left eye where I wanted it, the only option using traditional methods would have been to scoot my camera’s field of view over a bit, which would have meant compromising what I wanted the shot to look like. Rather than sacrifice my artistic vision because of the limitations of my camera, I selected the top center point (highlighted in red), focused my camera on her eye, and then shifted my camera over just a bit to get the picture. Because I was only using 11 out of 51 possible focus points it was much quicker to select the one I wanted instead of repeatedly tap-tap-tapping on the dial on the back of my camera.

focus-and-recompose-baby

This baby’s eyes were out of the reach of my focusing area so I used the top-left square to lock focus and then recomposed to get the shot I wanted.

There are some important limitations to know about this method, and it does not work for every type of photographic situation. Most cameras have a few different autofocus modes such as single (the camera focuses once and doesn’t refocus until you shoot a picture) and continuous (the camera refocuses continually until you take a shot). If you shoot static subjects, such as landscapes and architecture, you can leave your camera in single mode, in which focus-and-recompose works quite well.

However if you shoot things that are always on the move such as families, kids, sports, autos, or animals, you will get better results using continuous focusing. This makes focus-and-recompose tricky because as soon as you move your camera to re-frame your shot, the focusing point moves too. In these instances I usually just leave my camera in continuous focusing mode while I move myself around to get the picture I want, since the subject has usually moved by the time I would normally lock focus, and recompose the shot.

One of the trickiest aspects of focus-and-recompose involves the physical action of holding the shutter button halfway down with your finger, while you reframe your shot. Fortunately you can solve this if you use the back button focus, technique which decouples the action of focusing, from that of actually taking a picture. Moving to back button focus, along with using focus-and-recompose, has entirely transformed my approach to photography, and made me a lot more nimble and versatile as a photographer.

focus-and-recompose-tesla

I used focus-and-recompose to nail focus precisely on the Tesla “T” logo.

One other thing to note about focus-and-recompose is that the center focusing points on most cameras are typically more sensitive than those along the outer edge of the frame, and are thus able to get more a more accurate focus, especially in dim light. If you use the outer focusing points, your pictures might not always be as sharp as they could be, but if you focus with the center point and then recompose your shot you will likely get more keepers. Of course this is not recommended for macro photography or other applications where your depth of field is razor thin, since any tiny movement of the camera will dramatically alter your picture, but for most other situations it can be a huge benefit.

What about you? Have you tried this technique or do you have other focusing tips to share? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Simon Ringsmuth is an educational technology specialist at Oklahoma State University and enjoys sharing his enthusiasm for photography on his website and podcast at Weekly Fifty. He also posts regularly to Instagram where you can follow him at sringsmuth.

  • George Citizen

    I’ve been doing this with my Canon D70 almost since I took it out of the box. When I’ve tried to explain this to folks they think I’m nuts and ask why I just don’t let the camera do its focus thing without the hassle. Telling them I disagree with the camera’s focal point decision just confirms in their mind my apparent sanity bokeh. Reframing is so much faster than picking the right dot. Great article.

  • Donald Wright

    While I agree with some of your points like focus and recompose can be faster and sometimes the subject doesn’t fall under a focal point, but technically, “focus and recompose” should not usually give you as sharp of a focus as “compose and focus” if your recompose has an element of rotation (which is usually does). Translation is not an issue, but rotation will change the focal plane orientation which will then usually cause the intended focal point not to be in the focal plane any longer. Of course, minor rotation should not cause much difference if the DoF is deep or the subject is far away, but major rotations, shallow depths of field, and close subjects should be considered when using this method.

  • Frank Nazario

    I use a D3200 as a main onlocation camera and it has only 1 cross type focus point so I use this technique all the time.. even though it does have additional focus points around the center very rarely do i use them, it is way faster to focus on subject, hold the half press shutter and then full press the shutter.
    It takes a bit of getting used to but at the end it is very efficient and the results 99% of the time are accurate.

  • Terence Starkey

    I use a Canon 60D and use the focus and recompose, but reading this article did prompt me to check that my focus mode was in fact set to One Shot!
    I tried the back button method for a while but just couldn’t get used to it so reverted back to F & R as it’s so much faster and more comfortable for me.

  • “Reframing is so much faster than picking the right dot.” This is a good summary of why I prefer this technique as well, George.

  • You’re right, Donald. On a recent photo shoot I was shooting with my 85mm lens at fairly wide apertures and used the focus-and-recompose technique without thinking about how depth of field would be affected. On a couple shots the tiny movement of my camera caused the focal plane to shift so dramatically that the photos were unusable 🙁

  • Have you thought about trying back button focus, Frank? Your D3200 can do that if I’m not mistaken, and I have found it easier than keeping the shutter button pressed halfway.

  • I’m glad you found a technique that works for you, Terence 🙂

  • Pierre Cornay

    Good article but just be aware of your focal plane. The distance to your subject may be different when you recompose. You might have to use a wider DOF to compensate for the movement.

  • You’re exactly right, Pierre. Thanks for the reminder.

  • Frank Nazario

    Yeah it is a very interesting method to acquire focus… I did setup the camera for it but reverted to the old way…

  • Frank Nazario

    I totally agree with you… now that said the reframing should be kept to a minimum so that you don’t end with the results that Simon Ringsmuth ( above) ended with blurry photos.

  • Vivek Sharma

    A bit of away from topic question here!! While I was using my Nikkor 35mm prime lens at widest aperture of f/1.8, I found the pics to be soft. Even though I used point focus on the eyes, the rest of face was not sharp enough. Any possible reasons or anyone else had this problem with same lens?

  • In those photos were the eyes sharp? If you’re shooting wide open with that lens you’re going to have a very small depth of field if your subject is close, so it’s entirely possible the eyes were in focus but the rest of the face was not simply because you were shooting at such a wide aperture. You might try stopping down to f/2.8 or f/4 and see if that helps.

  • Jordan X Randall

    I’ve come across (or read) a good tip when using focus-recompose, particularly on portraiture and/or shooting at wide apertures. Instead of “tilting” around to recompose, like tilting your head (along with the camera) slightly up to get the focus you want and then back down for your composition, move your whole body (or head) around, while staying on the same focal plane. If the model’s eye is to the left, shift your whole body to the left to get focus, then shift back to compose.

    It seems to have solved some image softness problems I’ve been having lately.

  • david ennew

    I use back focus now as my prefered method and mostly single focus .my canon 70 d enables me to shift quickly to multiple focus if i need to.the only dissadvantage i have with back focus is that the best back button to use is not placed in the best ergonomic position and i have lost precious moment as i scramble to find the button by walking over the other two with my thumb.Canon needs to fix this with a systems update on its hardware or create a dedicated back button which makes more sense

  • Nelson Wong

    Hi, I am Nelson. Thanks for the experience sharing. May I ask the question that even when I use the AF-S mode, there is the choice of having a single dot or an area mode (multiple dots) for focusing, if area mode is used how does the camera choose which dot to be the focusing plane? Thanks.

  • AF-S mode just means that your camera will focus once and then stop when it gets things in focus. You can still select which focus point to use. AF-C mode means that your camera will continuously focus so if things move around a lot it will keep reacquiring focus until you finally take a picture.

  • Gallopingphotog

    Great point. Changing the plane, even a little, could affect the final image a lot, and I’d be scratching my head wondering what I’d done wrong THIS time! Thanks!

  • TR Young

    Simon is correct. One thing to keep in mind is that the closer you are to your subject, the more shallow your depth of field will be. The depth of field increases or decreases exponentially depending on your relation to your subject. Look for depth of field calculators on the internet or as apps for your tablet or phone. They are a great tool.

  • Blasthoff

    I can agree on that. Twisting or turning the camera can change focus off center.

  • Fred Blue

    Back button focus – a great system, have been using it for a couple of years now.

  • Alexandra

    I’ve started using the back focus button on my Canon 60D, but am still unclear as to whether I should continue to hold it down while recomposing, or would doing so shift the focus to a new point? Do I focus, release the back focus button and compose?

  • Generally you use the back button to focus and release it before you recompose. Otherwise when you recompose it would continue looking for something else on which to focus, which would result in a shot that would be quite different from what you originally intended.

  • Koushik

    The back button focus is a great feature……I am using it and really feel confident while focussing. One question – while using back button focus, it really does not matter much if my camera is on AF-C ………… as we release the BBF before recompose – camera does not use continuous focus in this case – am I right or is there something that I am missing ?

  • I use AF-C when focusing with the back button because it gives me more control over my photos. Using this technique my camera will continue to focus until I release the button, which is exactly what I want. When I have the shot I want and am ready to recompose I release the button, shift my camera, and snap a picture.

  • Michael

    As soon as I had the delivery of my Canon EOS 6D, within the first week after I had got familiar with my new camera, I changed the AF from the Shutter button to the back focus button. I think it’s a must to separate the metering process with the autofocusing. Plus I set the focusing point to the center one that actually is the most accurate single cross-type sensor. So when I am about to shoot the first thing I put the center point on the critical object in my scene I want to be in the sharp focus like people eyes then I press the back button to set the focus and recompose the way I wanted. Next I just press the shutter button half way to see the exposure parameters and either I adjust some of the parameters to suite my creative outcome or just press the button all a way down to take a shot.

  • Ted Dudziak

    I have been using this technique for a few years and it is now automatic when I take my images. In other words, using my D800, my thumb is always on the “back button” and the index finger is always on the “shutter button” except when I have to make a “right-hand” adjustment such as aperture, format size, target location, etc. I will generally shoot in Spot mode and will move the target to the side where I want to compose the subject (rule of thirds, etc) to minimize any movement for recomposition after I press the “back button”. How I do my movement is situational meaning that my subject will influence how I move the camera.

  • I had a bit of trouble switching to Back Button several years ago but now, just like you Ted, it’s second nature for me.

  • Alexandra

    Thank you. What about when focusing on a moving subject?

  • I just keep holding that back button down while I fire off the shutter. My camera never stops focusing and I can take as many pictures as I want.

  • showmeyourpics

    Hi, good article that invites photographers to learn their cameras and experiment with them. I don’t remember how (very) long ago I began using F&R, probably as soon as I got fed up with carrying around very professional but crippling-heavy tripods. When I photograph flowers or little objects in my small home studio with the camera on a tripod, it’s fun to use the LCD and move the focus point where needed, especially for focus stacking applications. Outdoors and working hand-held with less than static subjects, F&R is great. I got used to the shutter button half press but the back bottom technique is as good. With fast action, there isn’t even time to recompose and I do my final cropping in Photoshop. F&R goes hand-in-hand with the ability to read the scene, position yourself fort the best light and background, predict the action and pre-set the camera for what you know is coming.

Join Our Email Newsletter

Thanks for subscribing!


DPS offers a free weekly newsletter with: 
1. new photography tutorials and tips
2. latest photography assignments
3. photo competitions and prizes

Enter your email below to subscribe.
Email:
 
 
Get DAILY free tips, news and reviews via our RSS feed